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Versatile racing legend Dan Gurney dies

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Legendary racer Dan Gurney, a winner in NASCAR, Formula One, IndyCar and sports cars, died Sunday morning because of complications from pneumonia, a statement from his family confirmed. He was 86.

Gurney’s greatest career triumph was teaming with fellow American icon A.J. Foyt to win the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The next week, he scored the last of his four victories in Formula One, winning in his famous Eagle chassis in the Grand Prix of Belgium at Spa-Francorchamps. It was indicative of Gurney’s reputation as an innovator known for groundbreaking advancements in aerodynamics and safety as a team owner and driver. He even is credited with being the first to spray champagne on the winner’s podium.

But he also was known as one of the most prodigious and versatile drivers of the 20th century, perhaps best exemplified by his success in NASCAR’s premier series at Riverside International Raceway. Driving a Ford, he won in his first four starts (1963-66) on the road course in Southern California (where he lived most of his life). He won again from the pole position in 1968 – one of four wins he scored with Wood Brothers Racing.

In 16 Cup starts from 1962-80, Gurney notched 10 top 10s. He finished fifth in the 1963 Daytona 500.

He also made eight starts in the Indianapolis 500, finishing second in 1968 and ’69. He scored seven wins in Champ Car races from 1967-70.

Gurney raced the full F1 schedule in 1961, ’63-’64 and ’67 and finished fourth in the standings twice.

A winner in Trans-Am, Can-Am, NASCAR, Formula 1 and IndyCar, Gurney was the first to win in sports cars, Formula 1, NASCAR and Indy cars. Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya are the only drivers who matched the feat.

After retiring from full-time driving, he became a team owner and was instrumental in the formation of the CART Series. His All-American Racers team won dozens of racers in open wheel, stock cars and sports cars (including a streak of 17 straight from 1992-93 in IMSA GTP).

“The word ‘legend’ can sometimes be overused, but in describing Daniel Sexton Gurney, it’s the only word that fits,” IMSA President Scott Atherton said in a statement. “Dan Gurney was an American racing legend who accomplished nearly all there was to accomplish as a driver in our sport, from sports cars to NASCAR, Indy cars to Formula 1. Dan was an innovative car builder and a lifelong steward of motorsports beyond his on-track performance.

Gurney is survived by his wife, Evi, and four sons (Justin, Alex, Jimmy and Dan Jr.). Here is part of the statement from the family:

With one last smile on his handsome face, Dan drove off into the unknown just before noon today, January 14, 2018. In deepest sorrow, with gratitude in our hearts for the love and joy you have given us during your time on this earth, we say ‘Godspeed.’

Gurney’s family said his funeral will be private and asked that donations in his name be made to Hoag Hospital Foundation in Newport Beach, California. Fans who wish to express their sentiments about Gurney can send notes to eagleracingcarsusa@aarinc.com.

Here’s your primer for Week 2 of the NASCAR Cup playoffs: New Hampshire

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Last week, we brought you a primer on what NASCAR fans should expect for both the overall 10-race Cup playoffs, as well as specifically for the playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway.

Thanks to our friends at Racing Insights, here’s some of the top points fans should know heading into this weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon:

Breaking down the Playoffs:

The 16-driver field is made up of drivers from Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing (three drivers each); Chip Ganassi Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Richard Childress Racing (two drivers each), and single drivers each from Team Penske, Furniture Row Racing, Wood Brothers Racing and Roush Fenway Racing.

Chevrolet leads the way with seven drivers, followed by five from Ford and four from Toyota.

  • Two drivers making first playoff appearance (Ryan Blaney and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.)
  • One team making first playoff appearance (Wood Brothers).
  • Six past Cup champions who combined to win 10 of the last 11 championships.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The return of Darian Grubb:

  • 23 Monster Energy Cup Series Wins (will now rank third among active crew chiefs).
  • 2006 Daytona 500 champion with Jimmie Johnson.
  • Won the 2006 Cup championship as lead engineer for Jimmie Johnson.
  • 2011 Cup championship with Tony Stewart.
  • Was last a Cup crew chief in 2015 with Carl Edwards.
  • Returned to Hendrick Motorsports in 2016 as vehicle production director.
  • Served as Director of Competition Systems in most recent role at Hendrick.
  • Graduate of VA Tech with a Mechanical Engineering degree.
  • Becomes the fifth crew chief to work with Kasey Kahne in his Cup career.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Most Career NASCAR Cup Wins by Active Crew Chiefs:

Chad Knaus (81,) 
Todd Parrott (31), 
Darian Grubb (23), 
Paul Wolfe (22
), and Alan Gustafson (20) (Note: Gustafson is the only active crew chief with at least 20 wins who doesn’t have a Cup championship)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jimmie Johnson Can Turn it On During the Playoff Races:

Comparing his wins in the 26 races of the regular season to playoff races since 2004 …

Johnson’s starts and wins: Regular season: 339 and 45 (13 percent winning percentage); playoff races: 131 starts and 29 wins (22 percent).

Jimmie Johnson’s 2016 Regular Season Compared to 2017:

Season 2016 vs. 2017 
: Poles 1, 0
 Wins 2, 3

Season 2016 vs. 2017:  Top fives: 7, 3 Top 10s: 10, 8 Laps Led: 266, 188 DNFs: 4,  5 Avg. Finish 15.27, 16.69

  • Johnson won the 2016 Championship after winning three times in the Playoffs
  • Johnson led 471 laps in the 2016 playoffs after entering with only 266 led

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Hendrick Motorsports’ Dry Spell at New Hampshire:

  • Hendrick Motorsports has nine wins at New Hampshire, but the last was in July 2012 with Kasey Kahne.
  • Hendrick has won on 15 different tracks for a total of 45 wins since they got their last win at New Hampshire.
  • Hendrick doesn’t have a top-five finish at New Hampshire since Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished fifth there in July 2015.
  • As a team, Hendrick has led 14 total laps at New Hampshire in the last seven races there.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Oldest track surfaces:

All three tracks in Round 1 are among the top five oldest race surfaces in the Cup Series:

  • Dover, concrete (last paved 1995)
  • Atlanta, asphalt (1997)
  • Fontana, asphalt (1997)
  • Chicagoland, asphalt (2001)
  • New Hampshire, asphalt (2002)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Martin Truex Jr.‘s nickname should be “The Dominator”:

Martin Truex Jr. comes into New Hampshire either leading or ranked second in a number of categories thus far this season.

Here’s the categories where he’s ranked first: wins (five), top 10s (18), laps led (1,723), average start (6.78), stage wins (18), stage points (359), playoff points (58).

Truex is also ranked second in top fives (tied) and average finish (11.0).

New Hampshire has been good to the Truex family: Father Martin, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Truex have all gone to victory lane at New Hampshire in the NASCAR K&N East Series (Formerly NASCAR Busch North Series).

Year and Winner: 1994, Martin Truex; 2000, Martin Truex Jr.; 2003, Martin Truex Jr.; 2010, Ryan Truex (twice).

  • Truex Jr. has never won in 23 career Cup starts at the 1.058-mile flat track.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Most Laps Led at New Hampshire All-time without a Win:

Martin Truex Jr., 549 laps; Dale Earnhardt Jr., 378; Ricky Craven, 169; Sterling Marlin, 154; Juan Pablo Montoya, 149; Bobby Hamilton, 146; Carl Edwards, 139.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Playoff Insights:
• Martin Truex Jr won two of the three races in the round of 16 in 2016 including Chicagoland
• The winner of the first race of the playoffs went on to win the Championship three times: 2004 Kurt Busch, 2011 Tony Stewart and 2012 Brad Keselowski. Both Stewart’s and Keselowski’s wins came at Chicagoland.
• All drivers were running at the finish in Chicagoland, it was the fourth time all drivers were running at the finish of a playoff race the last three came in the last three Chicagoland races
• Only 22 of 131 playoff races were won by non playoff drivers, the last time a non playoff driver won a race was Dale Earnhardt Jr at Phoenix in November 2015
• Championship eligible drivers won the last 12 playoff races
• The last 11 playoff races were won by five drivers: Jimmie Johnson 3 wins, Martin Truex Jr 3 wins, Joey Logano 2 wins, Kevin Harvick 2 wins, Carl Edwards 1 win
• Jimmie Johnson won at least one playoff race in every year of the playoffs (2004-2016)
• Jimmie Johnson has won the Championship in 54% of the years the playoffs has existed
• Joey Logano won all three races of the second round in 2015 it is the only time in the elimination format that a driver swept an entire round.
• A driver has won the first two races of the playoffs three times: Greg Biffle 2008, Tony Stewart 2011 and Matt Kenseth 2013. Stewart was the only driver to go on to win the Championship.
• Three drivers have won races during the playoffs in all three years of the elimination format: Kevin
Harvick, Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson
• Kurt Busch (2004) is the only driver to win the Championship in his first Playoff appearance, 2004 was the first year of the playoffs
• Only two of the 131 Playoff races were won by drivers getting their first MENCS win: Clint Bowyer 2007 at New Hampshire and Brian Vickers 2006 at Talladega
• Each manufacture won two of the last six playoff races in this order: Ford, Chevy, Toyota, Ford, Chevy, Toyota
• The driver who led the most laps failed to win the last seven playoff races
• In six of the last seven playoff races the winner did not lead for the first time until after half way
• There were no cautions for incidents in the first two stages at Chicagoland
• Four cautions at Chicagoland is tied for the fewest cautions in the last 12 playoff races, two of those
cautions were for stage breaks
• 10 different playoff drivers scored stage points at Chicagoland: Eight scored in stage 1, nine scored in stage 2

Here’s your primer for this weekend’s opening of the NASCAR Cup playoffs

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As we prepare for this weekend’s start of the NASCAR Cup playoffs at Chicagoland Speedway, here’s a primer – courtesy of our friends at Racing Insights – on what to expect.

We’ll cover the playoff format and the number of playoff appearances to date for all 16 drivers and 16 crew chiefs:

2017 Playoff Format Explained

The format for the 2017 the playoffs will be divided into four rounds:

Round One – Round of 16 (Races 27-29 – Chicago, New Hampshire, Dover)

  • All drivers have their points adjusted to 2,000
  • Top-10 in regular season points are awarded regular season playoff points
  • Playoff points accumulated during the first 26 races are added
  • All playoff points earned will continue to transfer as long as a driver remains playoff eligible
  • A win by a playoff driver in round one automatically advances them to round two
  • Remaining positions are filled based on points earned in round one
  • All playoff points accumulated during round one will be applied in the second round as long as that 
driver has advanced

Round Two – Round of 12 (Race 30-32 – Charlotte, Talladega, Kansas)

  • All drivers that advance to round two have their points adjusted to 3,000
  • All playoff points accumulated are then applied, including any playoff points gained during round 1
  • A win by a Playoff driver in round two automatically advances them to round three
  • Remaining positions are filled based on points earned in round two
  • All playoff points accumulated during round two will be applied in the third round as long as that 
driver has advanced

Round Three – Round of 8 (Race 33-35 – Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix)

  • All drivers to advance to round three have their points adjusted to 4,000
  • All Playoff points accumulated are then applied, including any points gained during rounds 1 and 2
  • A win by a Playoff driver in round three automatically advances them to Homestead
  • Remaining positions are filled based on points earned in round three
  • Playoff points are not awarded in Round three

Round Four – Championship 4 (Race 36 -Homestead)

  • All four drivers have their points reset to 5,000, No Playoff Points
  • No Playoff points or stage points awarded to the Playoff eligible drivers during the race
  • The highest finisher at Homestead among the remaining four eligible drivers in the Playoff grid wins 
the Championship******************************************

Playoff Appearances and Best Year End Finish during the Post Season Era: 14th year of the post season:

  • Martin Truex Jr. – 5th Playoff Appearance, best finish 4th in 2015
  • Kyle Larson2nd Playoff Appearance, best finish 9th in 2016
  • Kyle Busch – 10th Playoff Appearance, won the Championship in 2015
  • Brad Keselowski – 6th Playoff Appearance, won the Championship in 2012
  • Jimmie Johnson14th Playoff Appearance (every year), seven-time champion
  • Kevin Harvick – 11th Playoff Appearance, won the Championship in 2014
  • Denny Hamlin – 11th Playoff Appearance, best finish of 2nd in 2010
  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr.1st Playoff Appearance
  • Ryan Blaney1st Playoff Appearance
  • Chase Elliott2nd Playoff Appearance, 10th in 2016
  • Ryan Newman – 8th Playoff Appearance, best finish of 2nd in 2014
  • Kurt Busch – 11th Playoff Appearance, won the Championship in 2004
  • Kasey Kahne – 6th Playoff Appearance, best finish of 4th in 2012
  • Austin Dillon2nd Playoff Appearance, best finish of 14th in 2016
  • Matt Kenseth – 13th Playoff Appearance, best finish of 2nd in 2006 & 2013 **
  • Jamie McMurray3rd Playoff Appearance, best finish of 13th in 2015 and 2016

**Matt Kenseth won the Championship in 2003, the last year of the pre-Post Season era

*******************************************

Crew Chiefs Making First Playoff appearance:

* No. 5 Keith Rodden – Fourth full-time season as Crew Chief, third with Kasey Kahne, Lead Engineer of #5 from 2012- 2013

* No. 21 Jeremy Bullins – Third season with #21 all with Ryan Blaney, won 2013 & 2014 NXS Owners title as Crew Chief of #22, Race engineer with multiple teams from 2000-2011

*******************************************

Playoff Appearances by Crew Chiefs:

* No. 1 Matt McCall – 3rd appearance, all with Jamie McMurray all in the last three years

* No. 2 Paul Wolfe – 6th appearance, all with Brad Keselowski, won 2012 Championship together

* No. 3 Justin Alexander – 2nd appearance, first with Austin Dillon, one with Paul Menard 2015

* No. 4 Rodney Childers – 4th appearance, won the 2014 Championship with Kevin Harvick

* No. 11 Mike Wheeler – 2nd appearance, both with Denny Hamlin (currently suspended)

* No. 17 Brian Pattie – 5th appearance, first with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., three with Clint Bowyer, one with Juan Pablo Montoya

* No. 18 Adam Stevens – 3rd appearance, all with Kyle Busch, won 2015 Championship together

* No. 20 Jason Ratcliff – 5th appearance, all with Matt Kenseth

* No. 24 Alan Gustafson – 10th appearance, second with Chase Elliott, five with Jeff Gordon, two with Kyle Busch, one with Mark Martin

* No. 31 Luke Lambert – 3rd appearance, all with Ryan Newman

* No. 41 Tony Gibson – 5th appearance, third with Kurt Busch, two with Ryan Newman

* No. 42 Chad Johnston – 3rd appearance, second with Kyle Larson, one with Martin Truex Jr. at Michael Waltrip Racing
* No. 48 Chad Knaus – 14th appearance, all with Jimmie Johnson

* No. 78 Cole Pearn – 3rd appearance, all with Martin Truex Jr.

*******************************************

2017 Playoff Manufacturer Break Down:

Chevrolet – 7 Ford – 5 Toyota – 4

2017 Playoff Organization Break Down:

Joe Gibbs Racing – 3

Hendrick Motorsports – 3

Chip Ganassi Racing – 2*

Richard Childress Racing – 2

Stewart-Haas Racing – 2

Furniture Row Racing – 1

Roush Fenway Racing – 1

Team Penske – 1

Wood Brothers Racing – 1*

*All Cars of Organization made the playoffs

Ryan: Following the money in NASCAR merchandise is a difficult path for drivers

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There is no greater evidence of Kyle Larson’s emergence as a star than how he is driving the narrative in every way on a daily basis.

Whether it’s winning every time he hops in a sprint car, leading the points in the Cup Series or fostering impassioned debates over grass-roots crossovers and stock-car traditions, the soft-spoken Larson has become one of the strongest voices in auto racing.

This week, he put drivers’ merchandising revenue front and center with a single tweet that had massive traction Monday, drawing response from drivers, fans and industry members.

So Larson is taking in more money off a night of dirt racing in Spring Run, Pennsylvania, than he has from nearly a half-season of racing around the country in Cup?

Well, yes, of course he is (and it would come as no surprise to the Chip Ganassi Racing driver, who has raced dirt for more than a decade).

Larson could have sold 25 times as much in NASCAR gear over the first 17 Cup races and possibly still lag behind his take-home pay as a dirt-track megastar.

While their grosses can be much higher, many NASCAR drivers’ merchandise income isn’t commensurate with the biggest stars in dirt-track racing. When NASCAR’s merchandising boom was at its peak more than a decade ago, a top star’s revenue share hovered at $3-4 million annually.

Now virtually all are below $1 million, and many aren’t cracking six figures.

Meanwhile, a World of Outlaws champion might pull in up to $1 million, and top dirt late model racers can make hundreds of thousands in T-shirt sales.

At the elite dirt events that run multiple days and have a festival atmospheres (such as the Knoxville Nationals), the best drivers typically can sell up to $100,000 in merchandise. In a lawsuit filed last year, dirt late model legend Scott Bloomquist and four other lesser-known drivers estimated aggregate losses of $100,000 if Eldora Speedway prevented them from selling merchandise at its prestigious World 100.

This isn’t easy money — there are costs for hauling and staffing the trailers, as well as vendor licenses, taxes and liability insurance — but dirt teams can keep much of the proceeds from merchandise sold as track fees are limited or often nonexistent.

Those are among the simple structural reasons for the disparity of merchandise income between Cup and dirt drivers, which is comparable to the touring revenues of rock bands playing arenas vs. those playing clubs. The latter earns a larger percentage of merchandise by designing, selling and transporting their own goods. While the crowds are much smaller, fans pay a fraction for admission and have cash left to buy T-shirts supporting the bands – which keep a large chunk of what they sell because of much less overhead.

It’s vastly different for a band that has a following large enough to tour stadiums with high-priced tickets. Much of its revenue is derived from gate sales and performance guarantees while merchandise revenue might be divided among a promoter, venue, record label and various parties. The gross is much higher, but the cut for the artist also can be much smaller.

This is somewhat analogous to NASCAR’s 10-year contract for its trackside merchandise business with Fanatics that started in 2015. Under that deal, 75 percent of the revenue goes to Fanatics, which provides the infrastructure, marketing, staffing, transportation and security.

The rest of the revenue is split thusly: 15 percent to the track, nine percent to teams (which generally is divvied into thirds between the team, driver and sponsor) and one percent to NASCAR.

That naturally spurs some questions.

Is it equitable that drivers are receiving roughly three percent of the gross? Or that tracks (which do provide the valuable real estate and incur some liability) receive five times as much?

Larson isn’t the first to call attention to this. When Danica Patrick announced the launch of her Warrior athleisure line of clothing, the impetus was the lack of income from her NASCAR gear.

“I was so frustrated with merchandise sales in NASCAR because they’re horrible, as in for the drivers, we just make no money off them,” Patrick told the Charlotte Observer in January. “I mean, I don’t know who does, but it’s not us.”

They are fair points to make, but it also is worth noting in the collaborative decision-making era of NASCAR, the Fanatics arrangement wasn’t conceived in a vacuum. Teams and drivers were consulted on reshaping a model intended to offer more options at a wider range of price points while making it easier for smaller teams to hawk their stuff through a centralized vendor (instead of having to secure their own haulers).

And while dirt racers might be netting more in merchandise, Cup drivers still are raking in far greater salaries and purse money thanks to multibillion-dollar TV contracts and weekly audiences that still stretch well into the millions.

That doesn’t preclude Cup stars from demanding a greater share. The same rumblings are being heard in the NBA as it enters an unprecedented period of player prosperity.

Given the life-and-death stakes faced by NASCAR drivers, it’s arguable they are the most underpaid of professional athletes.

But as long as they remain loosely organized in a council instead of the union representation found in most professional sports, drivers probably won’t get far in squeezing greater wealth from the industry. Collective bargaining on complicated financial matters is best left in the hands of lawyers and MBAs.

There are ways to circumvent the model and earn more directly. Some drivers use websites to sell their own products (sometimes tied to their own brands, such as Tony Stewart’s “Smoke” moniker) and keep a lion’s share of profits – though it isn’t always a cost-effective choice. Clicking on the link for Monster Energy Cup gear on Kyle Larson’s website takes one to the NASCAR.com Superstore – which is run by Fanatics and where online revenues are split the same way as for at-track merchandise.

The root problem for a NASCAR driver’s take, though, isn’t how the pie gets divvied (which hardly changed with the move to Fanatics).

It’s how large the pie is.

Merchandise sales fell off a cliff with the Great Recession and continue to sag for multiple reasons, including that simply fewer people are attending races. In International Speedway Corp.’s annual reports, revenues in the food, beverage and merchandise category fell from a peak of $87.2 million in 2005 to $41.9 million last year. The Sports Business Journal reported in 2014 that merchandise sales plummeted from more than $2 billion in 2008 to $1 billion in 2010; diecast sales particularly were hit hard, according to the New York Times.

Top stars still might be grossing in the mid-seven figures annually, but they feel a larger pinch because their cut remains roughly the same as when their total revenues were much greater.

And there are other economic forces at work.

Dirt racing fans might buy more of their drivers’ gear in part because they have more disposable income after admission. Prices for the prestigious Kings Royal World of Outlaws event at Eldora Speedway range from $34-38 (compared with $36-40 for the Camping World Truck race at the track), and ticket prices for most dirt races are often less than half of that.

The average ticket price for a Cup race is roughly $70 (according to Monday’s ISC investor analyst call). For a largely middle class fan base more gun shy about spending over saving since the downturn, there seems less inclination to splurge on a $20 hat or $200 diecast.

Meanwhile, consumer traffic patterns that would encourage impulse buys at tracks also are changing. The midways for Cup races, once synonymous with a carnival-style atmosphere, are more deserted. As sponsors change their activation strategies and redistribute their marketing dollars in the age of social media, there has been a de-emphasis on a large trackside presence.

The Fanatics deal was a big factor in altering the midway landscape, mostly eliminating the once ubiquitous individual driver merchandise trailers in favor of a large climate-controlled tent for all merchandise.

That model has begun shifting back toward trailers this season, but the long-term solution likely will be a hybrid. Sales were up at Daytona International Speedway stores adjacent to the grandstands during the 2017 Daytona 500, perhaps because it was the first with predetermined stage breaks that fans took advantage of the same way they might at halftime or between periods of a hockey game. Meanwhile, the return of merchandise trailers at Charlotte Motor Speedway didn’t produce massive gains (some big-name drivers significantly were down).

As the NASCAR industry seeks ways to regain its footing on moving merchandise, this is where Larson’s voice also can matter.

No one knows better than the 24-year-old that fans also spend proportionately larger sums on gear associated with dirt track drivers because they find their heroes infinitely relatable. There is a special kinship formed at many dirt tracks that allow fans to upgrade their tickets with access to the pits, where some teams also sell merchandise directly from their race haulers.

Aside from dwindling attendance and tighter wallets, NASCAR merchandise revenues also might be waning because drivers are more insulated from their supporters.

There is great opportunity for the next crop of 20-something stars to make an impact on fans’ purchasing consideration. Larson’s Cup merchandise sales are up by triple-digit percentages this year, and Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones also are enjoying signficant spikes.

As their popularity grows, they would be wise to capitalize on it by being as aggressive with fan outreach as dirt-track drivers, who regularly sign autographs before and after races to maintain personal connections with the crowds that return the favor by buying their stuff.

What if emerging personalities such as Larson advocated earning more money while also proving they help generate it by sticking around for a few hours after every race? By spending less time in the walled-off confines of the motor home lot?

Larson is proving this year he can drive the narrative in NASCAR. He also might be able to help drive revenue again by instilling some of the principles he’s seen in dirt racing.

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Denny Hamlin obviously wasn’t pleased about an inadvertent trip through the frontstretch grass that ripped the front of his No. 11 Toyota to shreds near the end of the Coke Zero 400. But that spin could have a major silver lining for Hamlin or another winless veteran two months from now when the 16-driver playoff field is set.

On the Lap 158 restart, Ricky Stenhouse was fourth on the outside behind Ty Dillon, and his No. 17 Ford didn’t launch well and quickly got disconnected from the leader. It then seemed the race could be decided among three other winless drivers: Dillon, David Ragan and AJ Allmendinger – until the caution for the wreck involving Hamlin and Erik Jones set up the overtime finish.

This time, Stenhouse restarted in third from the bottom lane and rocketed past Ragan for his second victory of the season.

“My car seemed fast on the bottom,” Stenhouse said. “It all worked out. When David restarted the restart before on the bottom, I was on top (in fourth) and pushing Dillon as hard as I could get, but the shorter radius around the corner helped David get out front.” 

If Dillon or Ragan had won Daytona, it greatly would have increased the likelihood of squeezing a major name from the playoffs. There currently are 10 drivers qualified with wins and six have provisional slots through points: Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth.

Joey Logano, whose Richmond win isn’t eligible because of a postrace violation, is three points behind Kenseth for the last spot.

It is possible that all of those drivers could win over the next nine races and eliminate a lower-ranked one-win driver (such as Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman or Kurt Busch). But every regular season since the advent of the 10-race championship run has featured fewer than 16 winners – and Sunday’s result at Daytona helps ensure that the trend is likely to continue, allowing some teams to qualify on points.

With the exception of Allmendinger winning next month at Watkins Glen International, or another felicitous occurrence of a well-timed fog rolling in at Pocono Raceway, the clock virtually has struck midnight on another Cinderella making the playoffs as Chris Buescher did last year with Front Row Motorsports.

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Whether it was the impact of divergent strategies, a softer tire that drew decidedly mixed reviews or even the lunar cycle, several theories were floated about the furious racing that produced a record 14 caution flags Saturday night.

“It’s been a wild night,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said about his final start in the July race. “I didn’t anticipate this much action and this much torn up sheet metal.”

Said Danica Patrick: “All I can say is that you all are getting your money’s worth tonight. From lap one, it has been crazy. It should be a full moon because that is how crazy it is out there.”

What if it was as simple as just that Cup drivers had more to race for than ever before?

Between championship contenders trying to gain stage points and wins – the last few laps of the opening segment of Saturday’s race featured the most frenetic action for a Stage I win since Kyle Larson and Joey Logano’s duel at Phoenix — and underdogs desperately trying to make the playoffs with an upset victory, the aggression on the 2.5-mile was as charged as it’s been since the second half of the 2014 Daytona 500 (which concluded in optimum handling conditions at night after a six-hour rain delay).

“Everybody has got a good shot at winning here, and you want to gain as many stage points as you can and try to win a stage,” Stenhouse said. “So I think everybody was just trying to get out front and lead the race.”

It also was indicative of some sublime performances by drivers (Dillon, Ragan, Michael McDowell) who aggressively were maximizing their ability and equipment while trying to capitalize on a rare opportunity at contending.

“Guys like David Ragan that just drove a superb race,” Jimmie Johnson said. “Put his car in the right places all day long. I could tell at times he didn’t have the fastest car, but he did a phenomenal job working the draft.”

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Despite recent threats to limit race tire allotments for inspection failures, teams will be bracing for NASCAR’s laser beams to be set on stun this weekend.

Kentucky is the first visit in nearly two months to a 1.5-mile track, where aerodynamics are at a premium. In four races this season at the 1.5-mile ovals of Atlanta Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway, 27 cars missed qualifying because of inspection problems. Much of it has been related to rear-end suspensions designed to enhance steering by testing the boundaries of the rules.

Road courses and restrictor-plate superspeedways aren’t as aero-dependent as the 1.5-mile tracks, as borne out by the past two races where every car cleared inspection in time for qualifying. At Daytona, 31 cars passed the Laser Inspection Station on the first attempt. At Sonoma, 31 cars passed every inspection station on the first attempt.

If Friday’s qualifying session goes as smoothly, expect an evening of Kentucky bourbon toasts – but it’s more likely to be an evening of shots for a frazzled brigade of officials and crew members recovering from another contentious dance through the inspection line.

Also worth watching: NASCAR will be scrutinizing the thickness of splitters this weekend by enforcing existing rules on teams pushing the boundaries. If splitters display excessive wear beyond the specified thickness of 0.46 inches, teams might be ordered to replace the part.

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In another sign of the strength of the youth movement afoot in NASCAR, 10 of the top 15 finishers Saturday were born after 1980, and five were born after 1990.

Those numbers would have been higher if Larson, 24, and Blaney, 23, hadn’t been involved in a wreck with six laps remaining. Blaney led nine laps and briefly was at the front just ahead of good friend Darrell Wallace Jr., who finished a career-best 15th in his third Cup start and delivered the Peak Millennial postrace quote of the year.

“It was great to battle Ryan there for a while,” Wallace, 23, said. “I was wondering what the fans were tweeting.”

Chalk up another addition to the “Things That Cale, Bobby, Donnie, David, Richard, Rusty, Bill and Dale Never Would Have Said” file.

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Speaking of the younger set, even “The King” wonders about kids these days.

Asked about how he assuages the old-guard fan base that clings to traditions, Richard Petty deferred to the short-attention span society.

“You’ve got to figure there is so much going on for young people, old people,” Petty said last weekend. “Nobody’s got time to set for four to five hours and watch a race anymore. If it lasts more than 15 to 20 minutes, we’re going to get our Google machine out and start punching buttons and doing something else.

“So we’ve got to get the next generation. How do we do that? Everybody’s looking at trying to figure that out. This is a whole different generation of people, and they’re looking at things so much different than what we did 10 to 15 years ago. So how do we tap into those people to keep our sport alive? It’ll take everybody to do it. Takes (the media) to do it, takes us to do it, takes NASCAR, takes TV, takes everybody in order to get to those people. There are 330 million people out there, we ought to be able to get to 50-100,000 every weekend. That’s what it’s going to take.”

Sage words from a seven-time champion the next time the endless debate reignites about whether there are too many 500-mile races on the schedule.

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There are three tracks remaining in the regular season where Ricky Stenhouse Jr. believes he can earn his third win (and first on an unrestricted track) and one reason why: With two victories locking him into a playoff spot, Stenhouse and crew chief Brian Pattie can afford to gamble.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway and Richmond International Raceway are opportunities to “do something crazy strategy-wise and add another five playoff points” for a victory, Stenhouse told NBC Sports. “I feel that’s our best opportunity to win.”

Even with Roush Fenway Racing still struggling at 1.5-mile tracks, Stenhouse views Kentucky as the first of many chances for stage wins. “We’ll use strategies throughout (at) places like Pocono, Michigan and Kentucky,” he said. “You can play different strategies, give up Stage 2 to win Stage 1 and set yourself up for the win.”

Pattie has targeted Bristol, where Stenhouse has two runner-up finishes (March 2014, August 2016) and five top 10s in nine starts.

“I’m hoping Indy, I’ve got some demons there I need to get rid of, but we have a good shot at Bristol,” Pattie said. “Bristol and Richmond are probably our two best.”

Pattie was the crew chief at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2009-10 with Juan Pablo Montoya, who led the most laps in the Brickyard 400 each of those seasons but lost a shot at victory because of a pit speeding penalty and a crash after getting mired in traffic by a decision to pit for four tires.

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NASCAR executive senior vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell appeared on Wednesday’s NASCAR on NBC podcast. Besides discussing a possible change in the overtime line, O’Donnell also discussed:

–Attempting to fill the shoes of Mike Helton as the supervisor of day-to-day competition issues;

–A childhood in which he spent several years growing up overseas;

–Dealing with negative feedback as a weekly voice for NASCAR;

–The importance of swagger from drivers;

–An emphasis on technology with the upcoming Gen 7 car;

–The plan for new helmet cams on every driver at races in the future;

–What might change with lug nut monitoring, pit speeds and debris cautions in the future.

The podcast is available on AudioBoom, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and other podcasting apps.

NASCAR America: Scan All from Charlotte: Crew chief feuds and jet dryer jokes

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“Yeah, baby! I dodged all of that. That was awesome!”

That was Jimmie Johnson‘s reaction after he narrowly drove his No. 48 Chevrolet through a Lap 20 crash in the Coca-Cola 600.

It’s one of the many highlights from this week’s edition of “Scan All,” which culminates with Austin Dillon winning his first Cup race.

The race was stopped for 1 hour and 40 minutes due to a passing storm that covered the track in rain.

Before the jet dryers and Air Titans took the track, jokes were being made at the expense of former Cup driver Juan Pablo Montoya, who infamously crashed into a jet dryer during the 2012 Daytona 500.

“You think now would be the appropriate time for a jet dryer joke?” asked Clint Bowyer‘s crew chief, Mike Bugarewicz. “How many cars does it take to take out a jet dryer? Just Juan.”

During the race, the crew chief for Jimmie Johnson and Erik Jones grew increasingly irritated with how the other team’s drivers positioned their cars in the adjoining pit stalls.

“The ****ing crew chief on the 77, I cannot wait to pay him back for this ****,” Chad Knaus said.

“He’s got my blood pressure up, you’re going to have to calm me down,” Jones’ crew chief, Chris Gayle said.

One of the main storylines this week has been Kyle Busch’s very brief post-race press conference after he finished second. His frustration didn’t begin there.

As the checkered flag waved over the race, Busch yelled and cursed in anger over once again not winning a points race at Charlotte.

Watch the video for more scanner highlights from the Coca-Cola 600.